The China Dilemma

In the past few weeks, there’s been a flurry of updates with regards to the regulatory approval of mobile games in China. First, SAPPRFT (the agency formerly known as SARFT… the lengthened acronym reflects its growth in scope) mandated that from July 1 all mobile games must be pre-approvedRumored details of the approval process (link in Chinese) quickly conjured farcical images of everything wrong with bureaucracy: developers were supposedly required to mail in 2 smartphones (with activated numbers and data-plans) and 5 DVD copies of the game package…

More recently, another agency with growing clout (CAC, which has a say in all things Internet related, and whose former head whom Mark Zuckerberg famously hosted at Facebook HQ a couple of years ago) issued a broad set of requirements on mobile apps with regards to user data.

Collectively, these new developments fit the macro trend of regulatory tightening in China during the past few years. For domestic developers, they represent an ever-growing cost of doing business at home, and there are already predictions that the pre-approval rule will wipe out a large swath of indie and mid-sized developers. For international developers, they represent the closing of the app store loophole in China: while in theory all games published in China have always required government approval in addition to a domestic publisher, Apple’s App Store ecosystem famously were operating outside this rule. This has enabled western developers like Supercell to effectively tap the China market without conceding publishing rights. Now it seems this is finally being reined in.1

Taking a step back, and coming to the main topic of this post: China has become one of the most important and hardest strategy questions for any game company, thanks to the juxtaposition of the biggest market globally and an increasingly challenging business & regulatory environment. Hence, the dilemma.

There are useful parallels to be drawn between games and other industries. Hollywood, for example, has been grappling with the same question, with even harsher regulatory restrictions (a strict quota of the number of foreign films that can be shown in Chinese cinemas per year, and seasonal blackouts where the box office is reserved for domestic films). Faced with a stagnating US box office in contrast to the tremendous growth in China, Hollywood has resorted to a mix of co-production and content pandering to get around the quotas and SAPPRFT.2 For film-goers, some of these pandering efforts definitely leave a sour taste (and often a WTF reaction), but in terms of strategy there are clearly no ambiguities in Hollywood’s direction and execution.

Back to video-games: in contrast, foreign developers / publishers (the EAs / Activisions / Nintendos of the world) have had the luxury of ignoring China (despite its growing market size), partly because of the complete lack of presence of the console market, and heavy pirating on the PC side. For traditional AAA boxed titles, this has meant that pragmatically China was often not worth the hassle, and one could argue it was better for IP holders that Chinese fans played the pirated original version rather than a version contorted to pass local censors. With the double whammy of the rise of “games as a service” (which has always been the China market’s bread and butter) and mobile gaming, however, these foreign developers are having to have a serious thought on their China strategy.

Without trying to be overly prescriptive – and there are no easy answers – I think the following would be a rough thought process for a developer to navigate the problem:

  1. Reflect deeply on the values of the company and the kind of games you are passionate about creating, and assess if it’s compatible at all with the censors. You would not be in a happy place if regulatory compliance requires challenging your core values, halfway through the process – decide if you are “in” or “out” upfront. For example, if you are all about freely exploring mature themes (and that is the brand you are known for), then it’s highly possible you will never get past the censors, and thus you shouldn’t worry about the market (until a change in the regulatory climate). Many Rockstar games, for example, would probably never pass this test; similarly, many war simulation games (especially those set in World War II) may also have issues with historical sensitivities.
  2. If you do think censors won’t be a big problem (and the big question is what you do in the gray area, such as a game like Diablo 3), consider next how well your business model and platform fits in China. From a market perspective, there is very little space outside of PC/mobile free-to-play, which makes things simple in a way. This doesn’t mean traditional AAA upfront purchase can’t work – Overwatch being a good recent example – but it would be a tougher sell. Offering a try-before-you-buy would probably be a good idea (e.g. Diablo 3 in China, you can play the first 4 Acts for free, the purchase decision happens when you want to play the Reaper of Souls content).
  3. You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned tweaking gameplay (except for the censorship point) – in general I would strongly advise against tailoring gameplay to any particular market. What is fun is fun. Tinkering with game design for a specific market more often than not can lead to strong player backlash, because the hardcore players are savvy and passionate, and there is ample exchange of information between players of different markets.3
  4. Identify a Chinese publisher that you can have the best alignment with, since by law you are required to have a local partner, and this is a marriage you will have to put up with. There are sharp differences in how the major Chinese publishers work and what they are good at. At work, I’ve interviewed lots of people in various Chinese publishers and their western developer counter-parts. While there are some common themes (“The developer doesn’t understand China!” “The publisher’s requests make no sense!”), it is fascinating how different the dev – publisher setup can be, down to the minute details (e.g. is it the developers’ engineers or the publishers’ engineers that maintains/updates the servers) that could make a huge difference in what the player experiences. The publishing negotiations are going to be tough, but be really deliberate here, since it’s a decision you will live with for a long time.
  5. If you are “in”, act like you are all in. Your Chinese publisher is going to offer a ton of suggestions and requests, half of which are nonsense and half of which can take your game to the next level in China. You need to have the team that can thoughtfully assess the input (and distinguish the bullshit from the diamonds in the rough), and the development prioritization in place to actually address them. An easy way to see if you are doing well or not – is China your #1 or #2 market?
  1. Which brings up the question – when will Steam get the axe and be blocked by the GFW…? Since there’s a vast amount of games in Steam that the Chinese government have strong opinions against, especially some of the best-selling ones such as GTAV… To be clear this is not something I wish for as a gamer, just that I think it’s almost inevitable given recent trends.
  2. Plus, Chinese entities are straight-up buying into Hollywood.
  3. Indeed, it’s a popular type of content on Reddit and in the corresponding Chinese / Korean forums to cross-post opinions from the other language forum. Players want to know what other players think.
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Thoughts on Uncharted 1-3

Over the past couple of weeks I rushed through the single-player campaign of the Uncharted series. As someone who owned a xbox 360 last gen this was one series I missed, and now I know exactly how much I’ve been missing.

This series has a clear theme / identity: it is a console action adventure “tentpole”  equivalent to the Indiana Jones movie franchise (with some heavy influence from The Da Vinci Code). Each game follows the same basic premise: the protagonists are on the trail of an ancient lost treasure/myth (El Dorado, Shangri-la, and the lost city of Atlantis for each game respectively) competing against some antagonists, and hops from location to location in an amazing race (and always ends up with no treasure – these myths are forgotten for a reason).

Its lead Nathan Drake is a college athlete/frat-boy version of Indiana Jones, with a comical mix of these stereotypes (he can be very scholarly and knows his latin when decoding ancient riddles, but he’s also a hot-head who rarely plans ahead and relies on improvisation to get himself out of a bind; he’s also the most athletic rock-climber ever).

Drake’s supported by a handful of characters that at first glance fall into clear stereotypes as well: Sully is the father figure/dirty old thief, Elena is the blonde romantic interest, Charlie Cutter is basically Jason Statham, and so on. The series is light-hearted in tone (this is not The Last of Us, also by Naughty Dog), and character development is generally minimal. For example, most of the Drake – Elena relationship happened “off-screen”: between game 1 & 2 they were dating but split up; between game 2 & 3 they got married but separated1.

However the series is surprisingly effective at making you care about those “one-dimensional” stereotypes, through the strength of its voice acting (a superb cast) and the sharp dialogues – there’s a number of running jokes that the characters play on each other and the game plays on the characters, for example:

  • Sully, the lowly thief he is, likes his hookers, and has a tendency to utter lines that can be interpreted in a dirty way by others
  • In the setup to a action set-piece, one of the characters would often say “let’s do this quietly”, usually directed at Drake (the player-character). It almost always never is done quietly (even if the player went full stealth, there would be an explosion sometimes to progress the scene) 2
  • Similarly in the lead-up to a set-piece, one of the characters would say “listen guys, I’ve got a plan”, suffice to say it almost always does not play out like the plan

Another major strength of the series is its cinematic flair. Uncharted is not shy to borrow established cinematography techniques from movies:

  • There are some great scenes where the camera either starts from a vista shot and pans/zooms all the way in to a detail where the character is, or vice versa. Superb at establishing the grandiose space and set design
  • There are lots of action shots with Drake facing the camera, running, with a chain of explosions chasing him. A typical movie cliché that’s somewhat fun to play through (and not just watch), but can be annoying if you can’t get it right the first few times (usually because the camera angle hinders you from predicting moves)
  • Especially in game 3, there is a beautiful 15-minute desert scene that acts as a buffer between two action set-pieces. It’s light on interaction (just walking) but heavy on scenery and character. This was one of the most beautiful scenes I’ve ever played, and is a fantastic case study of the intersection between films and video games

The cinematic flair goes hand in hand with another major strength – the series’ breathtaking set pieces. The series can certainly be a prime example of one reason why people play video-games: to experience life differently and travel to places you may otherwise be unable to. There was obviously immense care and attention paid to the environment and it remains a huge achievement.

Lastly, to talk briefly about the actual gameplay: the series is a blend of 3d platforming (the Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time type) with some minor puzzles, and 3rd-person shooter (with minor melee combat). For the shooter piece, I felt it was run-of-the-mill, but the series showed notable improvement (game 1 felt very dated in this regard, whereas 2/3 aged well and are still fun today). The platforming is mundane as well, but fits snugly with the series’ set-pieces and therefore feels fun.

  1. BTW this was done using simple but effective dialogues, for example a couple of lines commenting on Elena’s ring in game 3
  2. At first I thought this was a gameplay issue – the dialogue doesn’t fit the moment-to-moment gameplay needs, so the “quiet” part isn’t enforced, but the frequency at which this occurred made me feel it was or became intentional.
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Quick anatomy of a great Bloodborne boss fight

I’m not a game designer, so this is a fairly “amateur” opinion piece, but I really enjoyed the Lady Maria boss fight in the recent Bloodborne: The Old Hunters DLC, and thought I would try to summarize what I thought made it so great.

First, a quick video of the fight from Youtube:

Why is this fight great? From an aesthetics perspective:

  • Lady Maria is probably the most memorable humanoid boss in the whole game. The majority of Bloodborne bosses are beasts, which are generally physically much bigger and usually don’t wield weapons, whereas Lady Maria dual-wields the Rakuyo and dances around the arena with agility. This makes it feel like a classic samurai showdown scene
  • Lady Maria’s 3 phases – where she gains new powerful attacks – are accompanied by evolving visuals: lots of blood (dark red) in phase 2, and added flames (orange) in phase 3, making for some very attractive (and deadly) eye-candy
  • The arena has a gorgeous backwall – the astral clocktower’s clock-face with lots of natural light dropping into the relatively dark wooden flooring
  • In terms of sound-design, this fight not only features an epic score, but also cleverly utilizes the destructable wooden candle-racks (two rows on the two side-walls) to help create tension

From a gameplay / mechanics perspective:

  • As the player in the above video narrates, Lady Maria utilizes timing delays in her attack to throw the player off. So on the first encounter she may feel incredibly over-powering, but after a few trials the player can learn to properly predict / dodge her abilities – this is consistent with Bloodborne’s overarching design philosophy (hard but fair, rewarding to learn)
  • Her attacks (especially in later phases) also reinforce the counter-intuitive design where the closer you are to the enemy the safer you are – this is counter to most players’ natural inclination to keep a safe distance (“fight or flight”)
  • Like other Bloodborne bosses, she can be beaten with any weapon (or no weapon at all), and or even by a character that has never been leveled up. There are strategies that exploit her weaknesses (in Lady Maria’s case, she is quite susceptible to parrying), or you can try to fight her “fair”. The player can pick and choose his/her own challenge in how to defeat this boss – the game is extremely open to different play-styles / player fantasies
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2015 Games in China – the year in review

Partly inspired by this Game Informer piece I read over the weekend, I wanted to do a quick write-up of some of the big themes I felt specific to the games industry in China this year.

Rise of the mobile core

For me the biggest thing (and I was certainly late in recognizing this, though I think it’s still not talked about enough in English gaming circles) is the rapid adoption of core PC genres by Chinese players. I only wrote about this recently (when the numbers became too obvious to ignore), but the Chinese dev/publisher efforts have been underway for at least the last few years.

To toss around some hyperbole:

  • The most played and highest revenue MMO across any platform this year may well be Netease’s Fantasy Westward Journey 1;
  • Tencent’s Crossfire Mobile only launched in December, but may already have more active players than CS:GO on Steam 2;
  • and Tencent’s Kings of Glory MOBA has already bested Dota2 in terms of PCU barely a month after launch as well 3

Obviously all 3 data-points above enjoy the benefits of China’s huge market size / population numbers, but they are certainly still very relevant comparisons. Chinese devs have brute-force migrated their core PC genres to mobile and players have largely embraced them. The thing to look out for in 2016 is will these player-bases sustain – if so they will pose some real hard questions (innovator’s dilemma) for the respective PC titles 4.

Esports/streaming bubble continue to inflate

Somewhat similar to global investor trends, in 2015 China also saw continued investment interest in esports, both on the execution front (hot money flowing to teams / tournaments / related ecosystem players like streaming sites) but also on the “story-telling for the stock market” front in a roller-coaster year for the markets.

Wang Sicong’s esports / entertainment empire building continued with the rollout of his own streaming platform panda.tv, and the formation of Banana Culture which will be the operator of the 2016 LPL, amongst other things. He also recently signed a high profile sports announcer from CCTV, a number of Korean pop acts; and the PC cafe chain he owns a stake in is building esports-themed venues nationally.

He’s certainly not the only one; for example I’ve lost track of the number of .tv streaming platforms, and there’s been intense drama this year on the talent competition front (disputes over high profile streamers “breaking contract” to join competing platforms). Similarly, the rumored contracts/transfer fees of pro players continue to raise eye-brows, despite fairly lackluster results this year in various world championships.

On the “selling stories to stock market” front, start-ups / VCs / public companies seem to be eating up the esports concept and are ruthless in packaging it for boosting the valuations of whatever they are trying to sell. Companies with <$100MM annual revenue are getting multi-billion dollar public market valuations based on some esports related concept, despite having probably very little visibility with players or product control. (Better yet, make it “mobile esports”, which is all the rage currently.)

Now the hype cycle may still continue well into 2016, especially since the esports concept seems to be just getting started in the west, with the likes of celebrity investors such as Mark Cuban getting involved. But given the real-economy uncertainties in China I think there could be some quick boom / busts locally…

(If I sound frustrated or cynical about some of these developments – not really, this is really just business as usual in the “Wild East”. The games industry is not isolated from the macro-climate and a lot of this is just indicative of the broader economy.)

Console’s humble beginnings

China only recently removed the console ban, and Sony and Microsoft have been diligently seeding the market (I wrote about consoles a month ago).

In terms of competition, the early results indicate a landslide victory in favor of the PS4, with media reports of 410k units sold vs. XboxOne’s 90k units as of Dec 2015. However these numbers are certainly tiny compared to the player-base.

The big question, same as what I wrote previously, is about content. My working analogy is consoles in China is like Hollywood films a decade ago – there’s some promise, but the difficulties of operating are high (censorship / approval / quotas etc.). This will continue to be a push-pull relationship: some “questionable” content may be able to get past the reviews with enough government relationship building, and some content will be built in mind with the Chinese audience 5.

Additionally, there’s quite a number of local studios trying in earnest to fill the void – creating local console titles that can pass the government review – but the learning curve of building good console content may be high. On the flip side though, there are a pool of console devs in China, thanks to the local dev offices of big global developers such as 2K.

From the gamers’ perspective, a small but hardcore group of players will continue to be hungry for AAA console content, and with the popularity of social media / streaming some of these console franchises are starting to develop a small brand. So in sum, the trend is positive, but it’s really early days yet.

Steam’s (small) splash

In a somewhat similar vein, Steam has had a pretty good year in China, with the expansion of local pricing / payment support in November. (Even before then, China sales of some locally priced content like GTA5 were starting to show up in data analyses.) And within the local hardcore gamer community, it’s no longer a foreign concept to participate in Steam sales. In sum, they’ve had some good growth this year and some of the local prices generated excitement with players.

My personal understanding is that Steam is currently flying under the radar – they don’t have a on-shore presence, and certainly the vast majority (if not all) of their catalog of games have not gone through Chinese government approval. This means a generally degraded player-experience in terms of download speeds, but also the potential risk that they would be targeted by the government (e.g. if there’s a big PR scandal over some game on Steam, say angry parents complaining GTA5 was corrupting their kids). As a gamer, I would certainly not want that to happen, since Chinese players deserve to enjoy the same AAA experiences as players elsewhere.

  1. Chinese media recently reported 60MM cumulative registered players and PCU of 2.04MM in the 9 months since launch; my previous post quoted analyst estimates of $158MM monthly revenue in Nov 2015
  2. CS:GO PCU was around 800k; CF mobile announced 1MM PCU after 3 days of launch, and is rumored to have 10MM DAU
  3. Kings of Glory announced 1MM PCU and 7.5MM DAU recently, while Dota2 PCU on Steam is 1MM
  4. Disclaimer: including League of Legends, which I work on
  5. just like the current Hollywood blockbusters that are bending over backwards to meet Chinese tastes, now that they see the size of the market
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Fallout 4 – a half-review

I’ve pretty much been living in a cave the last month due to Fallout 4, and I think I’m “done” with the game for now, despite not “finishing” it per se.

I don’t have a strong history with the series. I think I played the original Fallout for like 15 minutes, got stuck somehow and never went back. And I don’t have a strong affinity for Bethesda titles – I played Skyrim for perhaps 5-10 hours and moved on because I found the first-person melee combat to be wholly unsatisfying (personal opinion).

If anything, I got into Fallout 4 thanks to some really strong word-of-mouth. The Chinese gaming site g-cores.com (which I can’t sing enough praise about) produced a series of podcasts that deep dive into the Fallout universe, and I was instantly hooked. It wasn’t just the content that gripped me – it was also the sheer enthusiasm in the podcasters’ voices as they discussed one of their favorite games. That right there is the power of speaking the player’s language.

I played the game on the PS4, and generally speaking I enjoyed my time spent. Bethesda could certainly upgrade their systems onboarding (I had to google a lot of “how do I…”) and the overall UX, because it is a pain to navigate the pip-boy menus and breaks the immersion, but that problem has been well analyzed by various gaming sites so I won’t dwell on it too much.

Then of course there’s the various bugs and the perceived lack of “polish”. It certainly is a by-product of the way the studio chose to work (e.g. it wants to keep the studio small for culture reasons but it tackles big open-world projects), but to say it’s not polished is over-simplifying: to paraphrase a co-worker’s comments, Fallout 4 has a lot of polish where it chooses to (for example: in the terminals scattered around each location, there usually are tons of emails and other details you can dig into that will portray an interesting story, and serve to remind you of the pre-apocalypse world that had flourished). 1

What I felt Fallout 4 did really well is the mini-reward loops that keep the player busy. The big plot is pretty thin (and I found all the faction endings to be pretty unsatisfactory, which is why I didn’t go for an ending), but the game excels at giving you things to do as you are wandering the wasteland. It’s not uncommon for you to start off wanting to pursue a quest somewhere, path across a location or two that houses a few other quests you have saved up (or just have some raiders stationed and you know there’s some loot around), and end up spending a couple of hours cleaning up these locations. And this free exploration feels satisfying partly because the experience needed to level up scales fairly linearly 2 so it often feels like the next level is always just around the corner, and the perks system is deep enough (and offers enough variety of play-styles) that you do care about these extra points earned.

  1. It has to be said though, The Witcher 3 is certainly showing every other game up this year, in terms of delivering on a big open-world and a really high level of polish.
  2. Each level requires 75 more XP than the previous level required, e.g. level 1 is 200, level 2 is 275, etc.
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The Last of Us (2013) – a review

The Last of Us was on sale recently on the PS4 store, so I got it for HK$120 (~$15). The main storyline made for a pretty compact play-through (maybe a dozen hours?), and my main thoughts are as follows.

What makes this game stand out is its top-notch writing. In my opinion The Last of Us is among a pretty short list of mainstream games with narratives that are on par with top quality films / TV / books1. Indeed the opening scene alone deserves praise for its super-concise yet highly-impactful character building, mostly via a few well-crafted dialogues and a sharp plot-twist 2. Beyond this intro, the narrative follows two unlikely companions, Joel & Ellie, and the focus is squarely on their evolving relationship.  This relationship evolves via a convenient “road-trip” plot device, which puts the two through ever-changing scenery and a host of side characters that they briefly interact with. This eventually culminates in the disturbing (to say the least) ending that certainly generated a bunch of discussions back when the game was originally released.

What I found rather surprising about The Last of Us is that in aiming to craft such a strong story, the developers at face value completely went against the principles of player agency. This is the direct opposite of games such as The Witcher and Mass Effect series, where the player decided how the story progressed (and chose the endings) and determined the fates of individual characters. Instead, here the story is set in stone, and with one notable exception3, critical developments are all presented via cut-scenes.

In this sense, at times I found myself breaking from the immersion, because I could argue that all I was doing was getting through the action sequences so that the plot could unfold. But really this is just a minor gripe, as the story & the two characters are hauntingly beautiful. If anything, it simply shows that there’s no single correct way to make a story-driven game, each approach (to present players with meaningful story choices or not) has its trade-offs.

Lastly, to talk about the gameplay mechanics briefly… it’s primarily a stealth game with some survival scavenger design. Playing on Normal difficulty, I didn’t really fully appreciate the skills system, but there’s certainly some player agency here to pick perks that suit the player’s play-style (those who are more eager for combat vs. those who prefer stealth). The combat can be surprisingly intense due to some tricky enemy designs (some Infected, which are basically zombies, can one-shot the player if they get into melee range), and with the strict cap on inventory (i.e. you can’t stash up a ton of ammo) the player is always one bad move away from being resource-deprived. This adds a lot of extra tension to some otherwise mundane combat encounters (e.g. clear an area to progress). The only glaring problem was the AI, which I found unsatisfying due to a couple of frequently-seen issues: 1) enemy AI stealth detection when you have friendly AI following you seems erratic; 2) sometimes enemy AI reaction seems nonsensical (running around in circles, or fleeing from you when clearly he could inflict damage).

  1. The Witcher 3 and Red Dead Redemption are 2 other AAA games that immediately come to mind.
  2. Example reaction (warning: spoilers) when un-suspecting teens play through this scene.
  3. As part of the climatic ending, the player has no choice but to perform an act that would likely be universally considered immoral.
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Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain – a short review

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is the latest and maybe the last game in the franchise to have Hideo Kojima’s name attached to it. This is a franchise I’ve heard about quite often but frankly played very little: my last interaction was a PC port of Metal Gear Solid some 15 years ago, and to the best of my memory I don’t think I finished it.

Which is surprising then, that somehow I still remember how that game felt when I played it, and therefore I felt completely at home in MGSV. In my view this game is great demonstration about the power of a “vertical slice” that is extremely sticky/addictive – the core gameplay of stealth infiltration in a modern military setting is essentially the same, and yet after dozens of hours spent I still feel compelled for “one more mission”.

The layers wrapped around this vertical slice are hit and miss, in my opinion. The plot feels like a direct-to-video action flick that has gone off the rails, with the opening prologue especially faulty as a case study of “what NOT to put your players through in an opening level”. The base-management/R&D meta-layer is reminiscent of X-Com and Syndicate (especially having to farm missions for bodies really echoing indoctrinating civilians in that 90s classic), in a generally good way. And I didn’t venture into the online play much, but at a glance it felt like multiplayer ideas from mobile games such as Clash of Clans were liberally referenced, and probably can provide some light diversion for players still wanting more action.

And then there are the level designs… Generally speaking I found the occasional boss-fight levels to be unsatisfactory, because they typically broke the stealth gameplay and required you to go loud and confrontational. Otherwise the levels felt well-crafted, and felt like puzzles with multiple solutions available. Combined with the variety of equipment available (and therefore gameplay styles), the whole package made for very high replayability. The design of having optional mission objectives hidden in the first play-through felt a bit cheap though (as a gimmick to force replays for completionists), especially given the sheer amount of content packed in the number of missions / side-ops available.

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Mobile gravity, and what it may mean for games (part 2)

Link to Part 1

In hindsight, a lot of my first post was about mobile gaming as the classic low-end disruption to PC&console gaming – mobile devices may be more constrained across the board (power, storage, screen size, input precision etc.), but they can compete along other dimensions (almost universal availability to play, wherever your are; hardware that’s not available to PC&console, e.g. camera, motion sensors etc. that unlock new design space; etc.). And also using the disruptive innovation analytical framework, it may very well be possible PC&console are over-servicing the player needs – e.g. it’s nice to have ever-more realistic graphics, but there’s probably a case of diminishing returns for actual player value delivered by these graphics. (The rest of the framework applies nicely after this setup – I won’t bore you with writing out the conclusions.)

I ended the first post with a quote from The Terminator series – “there’s no fate but what we make for ourselves.” In my view it is by no means a fore-gone conclusion that the PC&console product category will be sucked in by mobile gravity. It is possible they can thrive at an arms’ length. Again, to think this through we can look from the lens of “jobs to be done”. Some examples here:

  • The cinema business is thriving in the digital age, and IMHO suffering minimal to no impact from online piracy. One big reason is the industry has convinced the audience that going to the cinema is a fun and unique experience compared to other film-viewing experiences – it is the aggregate of the high-tech audio-visual hardware (e.g. IMAX screen, Dolby surround), the mood & atmosphere of the cinema, the social event characteristics (group activity with friends / family, it is almost socially unacceptable for someone to go to the cinema by him/herself), as well as any differentiating service the cinema tries to provide (e.g. adult-only viewing in laid back seats with food&drinks service)
  • The arcade business in Japan. I’ve not visited Japan yet, so this is mostly hearsay, but my impression is that there is still a rather lively arcade business in Japan, and it has been ingrained somewhat into the cultural fabric. It’s worth pondering why people still go to arcades when there’s likely a better selection of games at home on their consoles – what are the jobs being done?
  • Similarly, the PC cafe ecosystem in Korea, and other developed Asian economies (e.g. Taiwan, and the coastal area of China). As a ballpark figure there are still something like 10,000 PC cafes in Korea with probably a million PCs. As far as I understand it, it is a social norm in Korea for people to go to a PC cafe after work/school and play for a couple of hours, just like how they may go to bars / restaurants / clubs. It is a quite mainstream social activity – with emphasis on social being a primary job being done here. This is why Korea is probably the most advanced country in the world in terms of internet connectivity (fiber to the home, 4g networks etc.) and yet people still flock to PC cafes.
    • If you are wondering what effects smartphone adoption has had on Internet cafes – in China actually there’s a renewed growth of Internet cafes (largely driven by government removing stringent license requirements), and a new wave of more sophisticated cafes – WYWK for example has customized hardware/software as well as a mobile social app that generated headlines previously for being a hook-up tool (sex has consistently been a primary “job to be done” of social apps). Also if you visit any PC cafes in China, you’ll notice that the primary application (by far) are games, similar to Korea

To go on a bit of a tangent – in the specific case of PC cafes, I think there’s a strong argument to be made that a PC games developer can be financially viable by focusing on this channel. I don’t mean just using biz-dev tactics to ensure an install base / player-base in PC cafes – most competent publishers know how to do that already. Instead, I’m thinking about game experiences that acknowledge the PC cafe setting and strategically leverage them in the game design, e.g.:

  • Core gameplay that really takes advantage of keyboard+mouse input method
  • Strong multiplayer focus, if not multiplayer only. PVP or team-based PVE
  • Preferably session-based play, with minimal setup & downtime in between sessions
  • In-cafe location-based-services which also scale online, e.g. in-cafe tournaments/game-modes, local social features, local leaderboards, cafe vs. cafe leaderboards etc. Also provide incentives to repeat play from the same cafe (e.g. cafe-based reward loops – this aligns the developer’s interests with the cafe’s interests, and also makes sense for players because it creates a more stable local scene)1

The first 3 points are super generic and pretty much applies to all the top PC PVP games right now (League of LegendsDotA 2, CS:GO etc.). They can be enjoyed in any setting but they are clearly best enjoyed when you and your friends are physically sitting together. The last point has not been done well for any game developer (none that I know of)2, probably partially because PC cafes are not a thing in North America and that’s where most of these games are developed.

The above side-discussion is to illustrate one area where PC developers can use an existing infrastructure to hopefully sustain against mobile gravity. At the end of the day, players will continue to seek fun / engaging gameplay experiences, and if these experiences are conveniently available and part of an accepted lifestyle (as PC cafe gaming is in Korea), then PC gaming as we know it today can continue to thrive.

To go full cycle back to the start of this discussion series though, developers should be super conscious why they made a platform choice in the first-place. Is it because your existing skill-set / dev-tools / infrastructure are tied to a platform? Or is it because the gameplay experience you are going after are best suited to that platform’s strengths? The chances of success in the former case are much lower than the latter.

And perhaps one other take-away, for all developers regardless of their platform choices – be conscious that with regards to the general internet, the mobile internet IS the internet and to a first approximation everyone should probably be thinking mobile first when it comes to around-the-game experiences (like community forums and other social engagement).

  1.  Take note what Magic: The Gathering did for its hugely successful local play programs, and recreate that experience digitally with PC cafes as the venue
  2. Interestingly, ecosystem developers in China have made serious attempts at this space – but because of lack of integration with the core game, and sometimes malicious intent, the results are shaky from the players’ perspective
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Mobile gravity, and what it may mean for games (part 1)

Ben Evans had a couple of posts several weeks ago that I’ve been chewing on:

Microsoft, capitulation and the end of Windows Everywhere

The smartphone is the new sun

In particular, his central summary/analogy that “the smartphone is the Sun and everything else orbits around it” is both elegant and provocative. Combining his two posts, you can say that he looked at it from both a platform perspective and a supply chain perspective.

From an end-user perspective (consumption behavior), there’s certainly data that supports the analogy. Especially in emerging markets, mobile share of internet consumption has been steadily rising (e.g. this recent post).

This is a virtuous & self-reinforcing cycle – because of the healthy growth and sheer size of the smartphone market (e.g. people see it as a critical personal device, replaced every 2 years), it now commands the tech supply chain; because of the userbase and growth outlook, developers are naturally shifting their attention/priority to mobile; and as there are more mobile apps that users have formed sticky habits with, and as these apps build their inter-connectivity / inter-dependency (symbiotic relationships, e.g. wechat as social identity / payment provider for other mobile apps), it becomes more and more cumbersome for users to context-switch to non-mobile platforms 1 for tasks, and hence more incentive for aspiring developers to solve these tasks on the dominant mobile platforms (and hence the cycle goes).

Another analogy (and IMO fittingly also physics related) to describe this is “mobile gravity”, the first part of this post’s title. All other hardware / software products that we regularly experience in our daily lives are encountering the gravitational pull of the mobile hw/sw ecosystem. A few obvious examples:

  • Mobile is a key enabler of the on-demand economy. Uber and its clones are forcing people to rethink our entire relationship with cars / public transportation. In this case, “mobile gravity” will likely permanently transform the auto industry, at least in the end-user service experience layer (and probably beyond that, in the supply chain & production as well, which is not a new concept if you’ve been following asymco)
  • In some smaller products / services, they have been/will be completely pulled in by “mobile gravity” and are no longer standalone categories. MP3 players (iPods) and compact digital cameras are 2 prime examples of dedicated-purpose products that have been replaced by the general purpose smartphone. Dedicated gaming handhelds are another product category that may be dangerously close to being assimilated, because the jobs they are hired to do can mostly be performed competently by smartphones
  • Some portable electronics categories will be embraced by mobile as peripherals. The Apple Watch (and wearables in general) act as extensions of mobile computing – they are kind of interesting as standalone products, but where they unlock value is when they work together with mobile platforms. And it’s not hard to imagine niche categories such as DSLRs move more of their tasks to the mobile computer and just act as “dumb cameras” that have the hardware capabilities to take complex photos2

So far I believe I have been stating the obvious. I think few people today would disagree that smartphones will likely remain the most personal computing device for the next decade3.

What I wanted to drill down further to discuss, and which forms the second part of the post’s title, is what exactly does this mean for games? (After all, I currently work in this specific sector of tech.) Though with a question so broad (and vaguely presented), there are of course many different ways to speculate.

The most obvious implication (and perhaps the most uninteresting as it’s so obvious) is the rise of smartphones as a gaming platform in its own right. Clash of ClansCandy Crush SagaGame of WarPuzzle & Dragons and Monster Strike are 5 games that were/are in the $1B/yr revenue ball-park, with millions (if not tens of millions) or players. By any traditional games-industry measure these are massive numbers4. And there will likely be more of these games (by sheer virtue of the platform sizes, and people’s intrinsic needs for amusement on the go, which is a gross & criminal over-simplification of the “jobs being done” by these games).

But as many would quickly point out, there’s a world of difference between the 5 games I listed above and “core” console & PC gaming titles such as Metal Gear Solid 5The Witcher 3, and the Call of Duty franchise, to name a few. And this is where things start to get interesting IMO…  If by “console & PC gaming” we are actually referring to the core content experience (hi-fidelity audio-visuals presented in an immersive format such as a big screen or VR in future, richness of interactivity and gameplay depth etc.), I don’t think the need for that is going away. I think people will continue to crave  these types of highly polished entertainment experiences, and the bar will continue to be raised – bigger screens, higher fidelity, more immersion (VR?).

Again, stating the obvious I think. But what’s not obvious is whether Windows / Mac / Xbox One / PS4 (which btw are all based on the x86 CPU architecture) will be the software platforms powering these core experiences in 5 years’ time.

I think one way to think about this is via the following set of questions regarding the content experience:

  • What is the desired experience? e.g. “a cinematic story set in a big & richly detailed open-world that the player is fully immersed in” (which is kind of what The Witcher 3 is)
  • How do you interact with the experience? This includes both the input method but also the presentation method, e.g. “designed for big screen (40″+ TV) viewing, and meant to be played with a dual-stick gamepad” or “designed for a VR device with a VR controller”
  • What’s required to power the experience? This is computing horsepower, storage, power consumption, network requirements (e.g. latency is a key bar for good real-time PVP experiences), and also the presentation hardware and input method hardware

It’s important to note that while from a current standpoint mobile platforms are far behind PC/console in most of the above listed requirements, things are constantly in flux and paradigms can be broken:

  • Many peripheral vendors have tried making a controller peripheral for smartphones / tablets. From what I’ve read (haven’t bought any, partly because a lack of games, which is the classic chicken & egg problem) they are mostly suboptimal, but as long as there’s continued effort a breakthrough could be coming. Similarly there are experiments like the Steam controller that’s trying to reach parity with the keyboard+mouse in the living room
  • Related to above, a well crafted game can sell the peripherals required to play the game… Rock Band / Guitar Hero is the prime example where the hardware barrier to entry didn’t matter – people wanted the experience that bad. So it’s not unfathomable a phenomenal game can sell the platform and the peripherals needed to enjoy the game
  • We may frequently over-estimate the input method lock-in. Keyboard+mouse is seen as the pinnacle for FPS gaming (much more accurate / responsive than gamepads, which is partly why multi-platform FPSes don’t support cross-platform play), but let’s not forget that console FPSes generally speaking outsell their PC counterparts by a lot (which leads to development decisions such as making Destiny console-only). Similarly, there are developers constantly pushing the limits of our imagination in terms of what’s “playable” on a touchscreen – The Executive being a recent example of a touchscreen fighting game that I had a good time with (caveat being I’m not a core fighting game player)
  • I’m skeptical about the current wave of VR devices, but again this is something that likely will be cracked one day, and when that day comes, gaming will be one of the biggest applications and you will no longer be constrained to your living room to enjoy a core experience

I’m going to take a quick break here… I feel I’ve rambled a lot. There are still a few more things I’d like to note down in a next post. As a small teaser, despite what I wrote above, it’s not necessarily all doom & gloom for PC/console – at the end of the day, “there’s no fate but what we make for ourselves”, and there are some angles that PC/console platforms can leverage to sustain their position in gaming.

 

  1. I’m not speaking of specific form-factors / devices, but rather software platforms, i.e. Windows vs. iOS vs. Android. I suspect iOS / Android & other mobile platforms will increasingly expand to more form-factors, just like how they’ve already done so with both the tablet and the smart-watch↩︎︎
  2. As an aside – DSLRs on-camera software generally suck in terms of their usability, and feel they belong to the feature-phone era. This cannot sustain – either DSLRs actively integrate with mobile platforms, or they will be replaced by new specialized camera peripherals for mobile platforms that can perform the tasks of the DSLR↩︎︎
  3. They will continue to evolve / extend, but the basic premise of a battery-constrained, ultra-portable computing device with built-in wireless connectivity will probably persist for a while.↩︎︎
  4. BTW this doesn’t equate to mobile gaming being a profitable field – it’s very much a “red ocean” as I understand it and these are the “unicorns” amongst a sea of “dead” games.↩︎︎
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The Witcher 3 – a review

I’ve played The Witcher 3 probably for over 60 hours now, and just finished my first play-through. Some thoughts…

From a systems/mechanics perspective, I found The Witcher 3 to not really hold any surprises:

  • Large open-world layout, supporting immense amounts of open exploration. Even with 60 hours in it, my map holds more “?” marks than explored areas. However I rarely felt the desire to explore
  • A deep questing system with a simple “mechanical” setup: explore 3 large areas of the world (with lots of optional quests per area) sequentially to uncover the next major set of main quests. The later main quests would at times take me back through these 3 areas and revisit earlier acquaintances
  • Real-time combat that’s mostly swords-based, with some defense/offense spells. The base versions of the spells (“signs”) are already learnt at game-start, as thematically you are a traveled witcher. To me the combat was the least interesting aspect of the game
  • A leveling system that mostly provides passive benefits to your character’s stats / abilities, with some limited additional active spells unlocked (twists on existing spells). Interestingly leveling is primarily through questing, as combat/exploration provides very little experience rewards
  • A crafting system that supports hunting/gathering component resources. The alchemy part of the crafting system plays a strong role in supporting the thematics, however in practice I rarely felt the need to hunt for components – I had the habit of looting pretty much everything in sight, so when I did need to craft a potion/piece of gear I usually had the ingredients (or could salvage them from dismantling items)
  • A few mini-games: a very thematic card game, horse-racing

The execution of most of the above areas are mostly just so-so (with one notable exception), and what’s worse is that there are quite a few glitches / bugs… For example in my PS4 copy, the Gwent card game tutorial repeatedly crashed for me, which made me give up on this entire mini-game altogether.

I’ve also seen quite a few reviews comment that “the combat is not Dark Souls / Bloodborne“, undoubtably with Bloodborne fresh on players’ minds – this was my impression as well. It is an unfair but relevant comparison, and to me shows the importance of focus – a game cannot be the perfect game to all players, it must choose what it focuses on excelling at.

For The Witcher 3, that focus is the storytelling (the exception I mentioned earlier). The questing system itself is wholly generic (and even cuts some corners with designs such as a notice board where you can conveniently pick up side missions). And the mechanics of the quests are not ground-breaking in any way – it’s the standard fare of “go there” / “get that item for me” / “kill someone”. But the writing quality, the sheer amount of writing, and the related production values in presenting those writing (voice-acting etc.) is simply astounding. Quests, even the smallest side-quests, will often have (surprising) consequences later on; there are always interesting plot twists, supported by a memorable ensemble cast of NPCs; and the game’s grim world-view will repeatedly show the player that the best intentions can have objectively bad results (such is the tragedy of life).

In one sense this is basic storytelling – create numerous interesting characters; plant some seeds and come back to them later (preferably in unexpected ways); have multiple narratives in parallel, creating pace and tension, etc. – but the finesse and ease at which this game ties its quests together are remarkable.

Lastly, The Witcher 3 mostly succeeds by having about a dozen characters that the player cares about, and having the player make numerous narrative decisions per character throughout the long playthrough. Some of the consequences of these choices are not apparent until the ending; in other cases, they require the player to make immediate life/death choices (forced under a timer) between characters. As the credits roll, it’s hard not to reflect on these choices and wonder what could have been (although with the power of youtube and community wikis, exhaustively exploring all the other choices is a trivial task).

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